Architecture: A Passion & A Career
That Shirley Sherak went to architecture school when she was already in her `30s speaks multitudes about this soft-spoken, modest but intensely focused woman whose rigorous intelligence is immediately apparent in the thoughtful way she eschews the predictable response and tests answers on the pulse. A determined but somewhat “fearful” applicant to Columbia University’s School of Architecture, she wondered if she was making the right move in leaving her job with the New York State Urban Development Corporation to go for a second graduate degree (she had a Master’s in Urban Planning). Was she “creative enough”? She had “swallowed all the negativity” about women in architecture, despite having taken college math through advanced calculus, but she also saw that people in her office were being laid off and that though her own job was not in jeopardy, opportunity would be limited.
An economics major at Barnard, she knew that more graduate school would mean more working her way through financially, but she did it, teaching at night at Pratt and keeping her day job. The big surprise was the field itself. Coming from a poor family the word “architecture” was never mentioned at home. She never knew that there was such a profession. Still, she recalls that when her parents brought home the Sunday paper, she would instinctively turn to the real estate section and “try to improve the floor plans.” When, in college, on the advice of a friend she took an elective in the history of architecture, “a light bulb went off.” She applied to Columbia, the only school to which she sent an application (rather untypical), even though another friend, a pre-architecture major, said would not make it. She did, he did not. He was not the only one to discourage her, however. A professor—“he actually said this”—declared that “women weren’t capable of being architects.” Though she had always envied college classmates who knew their career goals early on, she did feel competent enough to handle any discipline, especially one that turned on structured design, “stuff with real substance.”
Delight followed in architecture school, where “every course was interesting to me.” She was the only woman in one class, and a professor would repeatedly pick on her, but she persevered. And prevailed. The times they were a-changing: by her second year, more women were entering the School, and though she was older than they by ten years, she managed to make her presence felt. She joined and became president of a small group, Alliance of Women in Architecture, which was dissolved once barriers against women were weakened, though she does note that she resisted an offer from the American Institute of Architects to have the group absorbed as a committee.
It’s significant that Shirley Sherak’s criticism of the profession today does not turn on a feminist theme but on a broader one that indicts education. It’s not so much that women may not make it to the top but rather that few architecture graduates will, resulting in frustration and a high attrition rate. “There are simply too many graduates being educated today for too few positions,” the result, perhaps, of movies and TV shows that make the field seem glamorous. Architects are subsidiary to the principal, she points out. The person who owns the firm gets to design the building.” But education is trapped in a soloist mentality. Architecture schools fail to show students how related fields can be challenging and creative and draw on cognitive skills honed in architecture study that would serve them well in any endeavor that depends upon creative problem solving.
Although Shirley Sherak’s client list constitutes a what’s what in many areas, she is quick to note that her projects are parts, not wholes. Still, those so-called parts are quite impressive, such as the underground biomedical Imaging Building she designed for Weill Medical College of Cornell University (she has evolved into an expert on medical facilities), the first of its kind. No one had ever designed such a facility—a “Rubik’s Cube in three dimensions,” which, after five grueling years she laughingly refers to as “white knuckle” time.
Yes, she is sensitive to pressures peculiar to women who want to be architects and have families as well. Architecture projects run on office deadlines, not domestic ones. But even men need to have a passion in the belly to compensate for the fact that architecture is a “highly cyclical” profession, sensitive to economic downturns when steady income may decline. Cautionary words from a wise pro. #